On the Rev. Boise Kimber’s wall hang photo collages of the minister schmoozing with Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Bill Clinton. Nearby there is a large portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., the leader Kimber said he admires the most.
And right behind his desk is a matching portrait of Kimber.
“Dr. King has always been an idol of mine. And a lot of people looked at King as a troublemaker, but when King was assassinated he became an American hero,” Kimber said. “I sometimes try to get my hair cut like him.”
Although Kimber may cut his hair like King, he often cuts a very different public persona.
A close friend of Mayor John DeStefano Jr., Kimber helped deliver DeStefano an impressive victory in the close Democratic primary two weeks ago, and continues to be a vocal player in city affairs.
But Kimber, 42, is also a convicted felon known in some parts of the city for his aggressive campaign tactics.
Kimber’s career began at age 15, when he started preaching in his hometown of Phoenix City, Ala. — “sin city,” as it was also known. He played football and preached his way through college. He arrived in New Haven in 1983 and emerged as a high-profile clergyman and powerbroker, someone the mayor calls “one of the strengths of New Haven.” He founded Newhallville’s First Calvary Baptist Church and is president of the Greater New Haven Clergy Association.
But along, the way, as even he points out, he found his way into a few controversies.
“Coming to this city I made a lot of mistakes,” Kimber said. “I was a young guy, 23 years old, fresh mind, cocky. I felt I knew what I was doing.”
He left his first church in New Haven, Pitts Chapel Unified Free Will Baptist Church, amid controversy, before founding First Calvary Baptist Church. In 1998, he resigned from his position at the Livable City Initiative, the city’s anti-blight agency, after an investigation revealed there were no records of what work he was being paid for.
In 1996, Kimber was convicted of stealing nearly $4,000 in burial expenses from an elderly New Haven woman while he was managing a funeral home for the owner, who was in prison at the time. Kimber, who is black, was convicted by an all-white jury, and the mayor and police chief served as character witnesses at his trial. He was fined and ordered to pay restitution, as well as serve 2,500 hours of community service.
Despite his controversial exploits, Kimber remains respected by city leaders.
“President Clinton was kind of a controversial guy, I thought he was a pretty good president,” DeStefano said. “There are few among us in public or private life who would do everything the same way we’ve done it.”
For the political powers of the city, Kimber has been a helpful friend.
“He’s very good at organizing people and putting together field operations, as a result of his ties to labor, his prominence in [the] religious community and his long-standing commitment to roots,” said Julio Gonzalez ’99, former Ward 1 alderman who is now running DeStefano’s re-election campaign. “Some people really don’t like him, some really like him, but I think he’s tried to move away from being polarizing. I think in our campaign most recent he definitely wasn’t as polarizing as he’s made out to be.”
Yet his tactics have also drawn controversy. In 1999, Kimber drew attention for verbally assaulting voters in an aldermanic race. More recently, he was involved in a yelling match with Jason Bartlett, campaign manager of DeStefano’s primary opponent, fueling what was to become a summer of tense and often dirty politics.
Kimber, however, remains confident in his role.
“There were people who were negative against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. against his stance on the Vietnam War,” Kimber said. “There were people who were negative against Malcolm X, people who are negative against Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton.
“There’s always been people who have shown negativism against black leaders, against those who have been in the spotlight and who have been vocal in their speech and in their conversation against the injustices of people. But it has not stopped my vocalness of bringing people together for a common cause.”
But some community activists say Kimber’s personality and boldness have done more harm than good.
“When you do something in the black community, it’s hard as hell,” said one community activist who asked not to be named because his work overlaps with Kimber’s influence. “We have to work to get credibility. Then [Kimber] comes around and screws that up getting caught in a controversy with a funeral home. When we screw up in the black community it takes years to get that credibility back.”
Other community leaders said they have trouble working in his shadow.
“When I came to this town there was a lot of skepticism about the clergy because of what Boise does,” said another community leader who also did not want to be named. “He makes it tough to operate with integrity.”
Yet Kimber does not plan on letting his detractors slow him down.
“I want to be a kingmaker,” Kimber said. “I want to put the right people in office.”